Coasting in the Spring


Tuscany coastline

Looking towards our destination

Heading off for the Tuscan coast in rather menacing weather on Easter Monday was not enticing, but as hikers we are forever optimistic and well equipped. Besides we were going to one of my favourite beach areas in Tuscany – the Gulf of Baratti. Fairly unknown to tourists but a very popular spot for Tuscans, especially during the Summer. However the beauty of these places is often appreciated more in the off season and we were with a well versed guide who was to reveal some interesting details that I had not discovered on previous visits.

As we drove further South, lines of graceful Umbrella pinesumbrella pines came to view which is so typical of the Maremma area and would continue to shelter us throughout the hike. It was still raining when we stepped out of our minibus to head through the woods and get our first glimpse of the coastline.

Centuries ago this had been one of the most important Etruscan settlements and the only one that was made Etruscan archeological siteon the coast. The area was rich in iron deposits,  which were traded and processed well into the 20th century and the iron slag heaps buried the Etruscan necropolis for centuries – now a very interesting archaeological site to visit.


Baratti bay

Baratti beach


With the afternoon sun we would notice the glitter of iron in the ferrous sand. The sea continues to reclaim the beach each year and protective sand bags line the beach, a small measure against Mother Nature.






Gulf of Baratti

Baratti beach








But we were still in the woods and to be surprised by some unusual architecture considered well ahead of it’s time. Built in the 1960’s from designs by a Florentine Vittorio Giorgini, the House of the Whale and the Hexagonal House are unexpected in this wild setting. Fortunately after their construction no further buildings were allowed and the area remains a natural park and these eccentric structures seem at home here.

On the way to our lunch spot, the Buca delle Fate ( Fairies hideaway) more Etruscan tombs were visible, some only simple mounds, others well defined entrances into the rock, and an ancient quarry from the 2nd century with precision cut rocks that look like they were cut yesterday!

Etruscan tomb

Etruscan tomb

Ancient quarry





Tuscany Fairies Hideaway

Lunch at the Fairies Hideaway, a gorgeous little bay with a view across to the Isle of Elba, a soft sea breeze and a well earned appetite.Sue Jane






Looking at Isle of Elba

Looking across to Isle of Elba



Regenerated we head off for more ruins below the Etruscan town of Popolonia, the 12th century monastery of San Quirico. By this time the menacing clouds have been swept away and we are bathed in sunshine.

octopus kioskAnd like lizards enticed out by the sunshine, fellow holiday makers are everywhere in the park area, soccer balls  and Frisbee’s flying, and savouring the speciality of the area – octopus at the Il Polpo Marino kiosk, and gelati from the local café.

As hikers we are satisfied with our 20km hike and feel we have walked off the excess Easter egg and Colomba cake and are ready to put our feet up on the ride home.

Baratti park

Gulf of Baratti park

Google Map Gulf of Baratti





Some things never change in Florence

Dante Alighieri I have been doing a course on the history of Florence during the time of Dante (1265-1321) and Boccaccio (1313-1375) and found they were surprisingly modern…or we are still incredibly medieval!!  The more I learn of Florentine history the better I understand  the power and beauty of this magnificent city along with its lurks and perks!

A peek behind the scenes reveals that Florence was a significant economic influence in Europe, minting the first gold florins, being  bankers to the great monarchies and Popes, and creators of the modern day cheque. It was the 4th largest city of Europe after Paris, Milan and Venice with a population of around 100,000, due to the constant migration from the countryside and nearby cities. A population that had doubled  in size creating new social, political and economic issues which had to be addressed. However city dwellers did not look favourably on the influx of these ‘outsiders’, a mix of noble families, ‘snobs’ seeking to consolidate their wealth and power, together with workers required for the new industries and continuing construction. In fact some of the most important buildings of Florence were begun in this period – Palazzo Vecchio, the Cathedral, Giotto’s bell tower, Bargello Museum, Palazzo Spini- Ferroni (home to Ferragamo) although many were not completed until centuries later.

With the minting of the gold florin came a complex tax system collecting 300,000 florins per year most of which (200,000!) was spent on military expenses – mercenaries, arms etc. Being a major commercial city the main Council income came from the tax on goods entering and leaving the city, like an early VAT tax, and the management for the collection of this tax was given to merchants, who stood at the doors of the city – a type of medieval outsourcing.

Florence Wine door

Wine window, Via delle Belle Donne

The second highest tax revenue came from the sale of wine to the public, with a hefty 30% tax on each glass sold! On average 1 litre of wine was  consumed each day and the city had numerous taverns. Aside from the taverns many noble families with country estates sold glasses and flasks from small wine windows in the wall of their Palazzi. “This cellar remains open for sales from Nov 1 until all of April from 6am – 2pm and 5-8pm From May 1 through all of Oct from 8am -3pm and from 6-9pm. On holidays it remains open for sales until 3pm”

Salt and Tobacco signThe salt tax was the third highest revenue and a public monopoly which continued until the 1970’s as can still be seen in the black or blue ‘T’ signs outside todays Tabacchi stores.

But when the city tried to introduce a tax on property there was a general revolt by citizens, so it was only imposed on country estates. Curious that this has been an election issue for political parties over the past 20 years and even our current Prime Minister Renzi has abolished it again on first homes!

Solicitors sanctioned all contracts, and everything was so well documented that it was common practice to declare less than the actual value, and families avoided the tax on public land by building extensions to their homes only from the first story up. So tax evasion, endless  paperwork and bureaucracy are nothing new!

Women were expected to dress in a sober fashion with little or no jewellery and could be fined for boasting their newly acquired wealth by a specific officer assigned to controlPalazzo Vecchio Florence their attire. The list of officials was endless and the system of governors complex, who while elected were oligarchic in nature, and to avoid being bribed or corrupted remained locked inside the Palazzo Vecchio for their entire term of 2 months!


Bargello Museum

Palazzo di Podesta (foreign officials)




After the military expenses, the revenue was spent on “foreign officials or magistrates and their entourage”  who managed the city’s affairs and were employed from outside the city to ensure their impartiality.

Each citizen was required to will a small sum of their estate to the building of the Cathedral and maintenance of the city’s walls. While maintenance of the city’s bridges, roads and public buildings appears to have been very low on the Council’s list of priorities.

700 florins were given each year in alms for the maintenance of the hospital Santa Maria Nuova which remains in operation to this day.

Via dei LeoniAnd 500 florins for the upkeep of the 24 lions kept in cages behind the Palazzo Vecchio. Florence, street of lionsYou may stroll along the street bearing witness to the fact.Marzocco lion





Many Marzocco lions can be found around Florence as a symbol of the free Republic of Florence of this time.

As a multinational style of society Florence suffered its own Global Financial Crisis when the influential bankers like Frescobaldi, Bardi, and Peruzzi families loaned too extravagantly to the Kings of England who were unable to repay their debts and the word soon spread to creditors who came knocking on their doors. The English barons revolted thus taking the banking power away from these ‘foreigners’.

So much of this explains the snobbery of Florentines, their resilience and their cheekiness of character which I have grown to love.

How much we owe to these medieval ancestors for our current political, economic and social system….both for better and worse!



Red Light in the Cinque Terre

It’s the talk of the town: limiting the numbers of tourists to the Cinque Terre in 2016. The word is out from the National Park and it rippled across the world in a flash. See articles in The Guardian and the Daily Mail. Cruise passengers

An online petition began last year as residents protested about the overcrowding of the villages with a total of 2.5million visitors in 2015 and no space to move for tourists or locals alike. Train carriages described as ‘cattle trucks’ attracting pickpockets which left many tourists without a wallet and credit cards for the rest of their holidays.

The continuous arrival of cruise ships forces most of their passengers onto local trains and ferries leaving many individual travelers on the shore for lack of space. Coastal trails looking more like a pedestrian highway and the limited beach areas standing room only.

The solution? The proposal so far is to count the numbers of tourists that enter the coastal trail, which since 2012 the only ones open are between CornigliaVernazza and VernazzaMonterosso. When numbers go beyond the limit imposed the trail will be closed. The high trails will not be monitored and remain open to everyone. Not such a bad idea as the trails pass through a fragile territory but then from experience it seems a rather futile tool to limit the influx since most cruise passengers and day trippers rarely hike the trails for lack of time and inclination.

If the idea is to limit the numbers from 2.5 million to 1.5 million In my opinion the hikers count will have little influence and is targeting the wrong type of tourist. But at least it is a recognition of the problem.

Sustainable tourism is an issue worldwide, as more isolated places become renown and tourism becomes cheap and accessible to the masses.

Few would realize that the villages are small both physically and residentially with only a total of around 4,000 residents in the entire Cinque Terre. At 1/1/2015 – residents in the Council area of Riomaggiore and Manarola were 1,591, Monterosso 1,476 and Vernazza and Corniglia a mere 864! As residents leave during the season to rent their apartments the villages lose their atmosphere and become a barren Disneyland.

VernazzaFor tourists the experience is often not what they were expecting as they file elbow to elbow up and down, queue incessantly for a toilet or even a coffee, or sit bewildered on the pavement below the station impatiently waiting for a train to the next nightmare!

For the moment discussions continue between the National park, the Councils and the Train company as to what the changes will be and when they will be implemented. I tried to get some answers from staff at the station of Corniglia who could only shrug and say for the moment tickets remain the same price as before ( ie €1.80 between villages instead of the rumoured €4.00) and for further information to contact the National Park. The National Park replied ” that they did not want to discourage tourists and that there were no definite details to the measures to be implemented”?! Vernazza council circulated a new extensive questionnaire which will be collated on views from residents, tour operators, guides etc.

I will keep you posted!! But don’t let it put you off visiting as the situation can only get better and the Cinque Terre remains gorgeous!Manarola













Photo credit for crowd photos from Vernazza:Corniglia Council blog